Hey, all. This week I learned what they mean by “chasing down an interview.” I had been planning to post a conversation with one of the actors from October Road, and the two of us have been playing phone tag for days. My backup plan for this week, a write up of the Gene Wilder special on Turner Classic Movies that premieres Tuesday, fell through when the network failed to get me a screener. Bummer. I love Wilder. Anyway, at the last minute (i.e. Sunday morning) I was hanging with my son on the living room couch when I was inspired to write the following. I hope you enjoy it. Aloha.
One of the drawbacks of my son Jacob’s breathing treatments for cystic fibrosis is the amount of television he and his sister, Sophie, end up watching. While we try to curb the level of crap they end up seeing, some things slip thought the cracks. Unfortunately, once an adventure show like Power Rangers kicks down your front door with its level of “fantasy” violence, as a parent you wind up sitting with he kids making sure what’s on the screen is not too inappropriate (this also goes for those teen shows on Nick and Disney which deal with complex emotional issues that I find a little much for my nine-year-old). When Jacob was younger, watching television with him was a mixed bag. The Wiggles were tolerable, Sesame Street educational, but Barney made me want to rip my hair out. My son’s interests have now shifted to comic books and action figures (“guys,” as he calls them, even the female superheroes) and for a thirtysomething fanboy like myself, it’s an opportunity to relive a bit of my childhood.
The most memorable television shows from my youth were Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers (the latter’s theme song is still embedded in my memory). Both series were originally Japanese animated shows produced in the early ’70s (Gatchaman and Space Battleship Yamato, respectively) and imported into U.S. syndication during the latter half of the decade with English-dubbed voices and some of the adult content sliced out for the target audience of prepubescent boys. What made them so enjoyable to tune into was the continuing drama that unfolded in each episode. Battle of the Planets may have been about the struggle between a group of teen warriors taking on an evil alien nemesis, but there was always the mystery surrounding the identity of the villain Zoltar and the question of hero Mark’s family lineage that carried on from episode to episode. Likewise, Star Blazers was the ongoing saga of a space battleship (modeled after a WWII battleship) on a a yearlong mission to save Earth. Each episode concluded with a countdown to the number of days remaining for the Star Force (as the crew was called) to complete their mission and save humanity. Good stuff.
Looking back, these animated TV shows, along with the chapter-like structure of classic X-Men and Teen Titans comics I was reading at age 11, influenced the type of writer I would become one day. I was not alone, as most of the animated series that are popular today use continuing storyline structures, like nighttime dramas and the comic books from which they are drawing stories and inspiration. Although superheroes have broad appeal (e.g. The Incredibles, the Spider-Man films, 300, and Batman Begins), television animation is treated like the bastard child of entertainment, as if its sole purpose is to sell toys and cereal. Fortunately, the writers and artists that work on most of these series don’t think that way. Here are four of the best action/adventure animated shows currently running on television. Now, if you’re not into this type of thing, I ask you to still read on. Being familiar with them may some day make you a very cool uncle or aunt.
THE BATMAN (Kids WB, Boomerang)
This one is a bit of a cheat because it just ended its fifth and final season on television. However, you can catch reruns on Boomerang and DVDs of seasons 1-4 are available to buy. Taking its tone from Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman Begins, this show followed a young Bruce Wayne (26 years old) as he took up the role of Gotham City’s dark knight of justice. WB animation has a long, excellent history with Batman, starting with the great syndicated series from the early ’90s. The 21st century version of the Batman mythology took its time introducing the various characters that have become staples to anyone who knows the comic book or movies. Commissioner Gordon doesn’t appear until the second season, and Robin doesn’t show up until season four. While each episode could stand alone, storylines constantly refer back to characters and unresolved matters from previous seasons. The artwork is very striking and powerful. The colors pop out of the screen, even during the night scenes, and nothing feels half-assed in the animation. Finally, while the action is paced remarkably well, The Batman also lets stories slowly evolve, maximizing the full use of their 22 minutes. I guess the luxury of working with an iconic character is that people are just as interested in the backstory as they are the fight scenes. Although it has ended its run, this is not the end of Batman on television. Cartoon Network has already announced another new series that will premiere in 2008, this one called The Brave and the Bold, featuring Batman teaming up with a different superhero each episode.
BEN 10 (Cartoon Network)
Ben 10 has become one of Cartoon Network’s most popular shows, spawning a spin-off series that premieres this Friday, Ben 10 Alien Force, and a live-action movie directed by Bill & Ted‘s Alex Winter. For the unfamiliar, Ben Tennyson is a ten-year-old kid stuck on an endless summer road trip with his cousin, Gwen, and their grandfather, Max. Their first night out, a meteor crashes into the forest where they are camping and Ben stumbles upon it. Inside the meteor is a watch-like alien device called The Omnitrix, containing the DNA of ten different alien creatures. The Omnitrix latches itself to Ben’s wrist and he is soon able to shape shift into one of those ten aliens for a short period of time. This proves useful as Ben, Gwen, and Grandpa Max run into all sorts of out of this world trouble throughout the course of their “vacation” together (including a monstrous alien named Vilgax who wants the Omnitrix for himself). The continuing mystery about the Omnitrix and Vilgax drives the mythology behind Ben 10. The show itself is influenced by anime, wonderfully animated using traditional animation with some CG elements. While Ben and Gwen’s bickering can sometime be grating, what is most appealing about the show is the vast imagination the producers have brought to it. Additionally, the producers have been willing to take risks in their storytelling, including an episode that theorizes what if Gwen had found the Omnitrix and one in which Ben and Gwen get zapped into a video game.
SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN (Kids WB)
After seeing the success DC Comics has had with their characters and tweaking their classic looks for television, Marvel Comics premiered their new Spider-Man series in March featuring a young, sleek-looking hero that skipped over an origin episode and, instead, jumped right into the life of Peter Parker and his alter ego. In Spectacular Spider-Man, Peter is in high school, struggling with all of that crap, while fighting the likes of the Vulture, Sandman and Electro, plus a criminal kingpin named Tombstone, who is intent on creating more supervillains in order to distract Spider-Man. This is a great update on the 40-year=old comic book characters. I never thought it would be cool to see Spidey swinging through the cityscapes while holding a conversation on a cell phone, but it works. The producers have done a great job of keeping a fun element to the show. Portraying Peter Parker and his peers as teenagers creates a sense of wonder and awe in seeing and being Spider-Man that doesn’t so much exist in previous animated incarnations of the web slinger. However, that doesn’t mean this show deviates from the Spidey tradition. Although some elements of the mythology have been streamlined for convenience, the writers are reverently covering much of the ground that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita, Sr. did in the glory days of Spider-Man comics back in the 60’s. I am wondering how they’re going to handle the character Gwen Stacey, who died at the hands of the Green Goblin in one of the most heartbreaking stories in comic history. Will they have her fall in love with Peter, eventually becoming a victim to the Goblin? What’s more, will Norman Osborn, the first Green Goblin, actually die? Anyone familiar with the networks aiming shows at kids knows that death is a no-no. As with The Batman, Spectacular Spider-Man is gradually moving the stories along and introducing story elements when it feels organic to the over all story arc, as opposed to when it might make for better ratings. Whatever they decide, I’m along for the ride. Spectacular Spider-Man is fun and exciting. I just wish they’d do something about the characters’ cartoony eyes; then it would be a perfect show.
LEGION OF SUPER HEROES (Kids WB)
When Warner Brothers created a series devoted to this team of teenage super heroes in the 31st Century, I was (yawn) not very excited. The comic book for Legion of Super Heroes (published by DC comics) was always a bore to me. Even when Superboy was joining them on their adventures, all of the characters felt one note and looked alike. I didn’t know Comet Boy from Lightning Boy, nor did I care. Lucky for me I have a six-year-old boy who was exited to see the animated version (featuring a young Superman). Legion of Super Heroes premiered last year, and has been consistently fun and exciting. There is a chance that it’s the two bowls of Cap’n Crunch I eat on Saturday mornings, but Legion of Super Heroes has provided two seasons’ worth of excellent writing and great animation worthy of the Batman franchise and the Justice League series that aired on Cartoon Network. Not having any knowledge of the Legion of Super Heroes comic-book mythology, this Saturday morning diversion has been interesting. The challenge the producers faced was creating interest in a bunch of unknown superheroes. They wisely decided spend the entire first season introducing the 31st century through the eyes of Clark Kent/Superman, brought to the future by the Legion to help fight a crime. The Legion’s intentions of bringing an older Superman to their era backfires and they whisk Clark Kent, before he has assumed the Superman identity, forward in time with them. Thus, Clark not only has to learn about the future world, but how to be a hero. Season one also focused on a core group of members, instead of the massive collective the Legion becomes (apparently the 31st century is full of supper human beings). By getting to know Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Bouncing Boy, and Brainiac 5, we were allowed to enter their world gradually, much like the Superman character. Season two began with a bang, introducing a villain for the 41st century who goes back in time to the 31st century, pursued by a clone of Superman who is out for blood. Season two had an overall arc for the entire season that the show carried out pretty darn well. Additionally, because of the care that went into introducing those characters in season one, Superman and his clone were used sparingly, instead allowing the focus to stay on the Legionnaires. Season two ended with a bit of a cliffhanger, with Brainiac 5 leaving the group and Superman X returning to his time. Unfortunately, I have read that the show has been canceled because the Kids WB will no longer exist next fall. Perhaps Cartoon Network will look into reviving it for future seasons.